Nick Cave and Gene Pitney hardly seem to occupy the same universe, but it appears that they have at least one thing in common: they both have an ear for a grand romantic love song. In Nick Cave’s world, of course, romance isn’t romance without blood, filth and tragedy. When he promises “Scarlet for me and scarlet for you” he’s not talking about a nice corsage. But when he picks an apparently sunshiny love song by a sunshiny pop singer like Gene Pitney, he does it without a trace of irony. You can make fun of Pitney and the edgeless pop music he recorded in the 60’s, when the boundaries between edgy and square were battlefields. A well made love song, when sung from the heart, rings true when a guy with not one hair out of place delivers it, and it rings equally true when delivered by a guy who looks like he crawled out of a dumpster.
I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s music lately – more so than usual – and, well, you all know what “80’s music” sounds like. I don’t have to explain to you how the 80’s were aggressively pop oriented and coated in many saturated shades of chartreuse, fuchsia and aquamarine. Then there was the obligatory kickback and rebellion, and – deep drumroll – the birth of the goth movement, created by and for people who felt that music was in dire need of more black lipstick, heroin and murder. Nobody stood in starker contrast to everything MTV friendly and candy colored than Nick Cave, a sepulchral creep whose exploits as a gutter punk soon became legendary. He was the ultimate alternative to the Aqua Net crowd, with the sickest imagination, the raggedest wardrobe, and the overall vibe of a hungry and mange-eaten street dog. (The coiffure looked like the result of months of rolling around in junkie effluvium, but I’m guessing he used the same damn Aqua Net as everybody else.) The murder-junkie aesthetic must have been a real shock to the system of anyone who stumbled upon a record invitingly titled Kicking Against the Pricks. I imagine a lot of people picked it up for the title alone, and their lives were never the same after.
I’ve said before that I don’t have much use for Peter Gabriel. But like everyone who’s ever had the experience of watching late-night MTV, I can’t get enough of his visually inventive Sledgehammer video. How many music videos can boast contributions from Aardman Studios’ Nick Park and the Quay Brothers? It was eye-popping in 1986 and is no less so to this day. It was really part of an industry-wide renaissance of video creativity, when ‘promotional videos’ grew from being merely promotional to being an integral part of an artist’s overall vision. The song’s alright too, though it’s slightly too bad that Gabriel chose to hang all that visual artistry on what’s basically a typical mindless mid-80’s plastic soul jam filled with crude 3rd grade quality double entendres.
Nick Cave takes us on down the road to madness. Shooting up heroin in Berlin had already been done by the time Nick Cave felt compelled to go do it, but he put his own spit on it, and came back with an unmatched vision of squalor and depravity. As usual, the music is steeped in violence and obsession, ideas about romance straight out of gothic novels and penny dreadfuls. It’s not a happy land. What fell away? Not some woman. The potential of the future, the freedom of the untrod road, innocence, an open heart. All those things fall away.
That title certainly sounds like some hippie, summer-of-love bullshit. A t-shirt from a vendor in Golden Gate Park, years after all the actual hippies got cleared out. But that’s not the vibe this song is going for at all. It makes braking for rainbows sound kind of melancholy. What? When has the word ‘melancholy’ ever appeared in an article about The B-52’s? They’re the band who made it their life’s mission to be the opposite of everything sad and blue. Well, that was before their guitarist died of AIDS. Although their Bouncing Off the Satellites album was recorded before Ricky Wilson’s death, and none of the other band members were aware that he was ill, there’s a definitely something-ain’t-right vibe about the record. Maybe the band was just running out of steam after a really solid run of really good records, and also maybe they at least had to have suspected that Wilson wasn’t well. HIV can take years to develop into full-blown AIDS, but once it does, the effects are brutal. The person is walking around but their immune system is already dead. Not exactly conducive to writing and recording happytime party fun music. Hence, a lousy and depressing B-52’s album that disappeared upon arrival, because the band understandably was in no state to for promotional activities. Still, some of the songs have a weird beauty; not party music, but crying on the morning after music.
Under ‘fun facts I didn’t know about famous albums’, Joe Jackson’s Big World was apparently recorded live, and not just live in the studio, but live as in, in concert. That fact amazes me, because until I perused the Wiki, I never would have guessed. I generally kind of hate live albums. They’re usually really sloppy, heavy on the hits, poorly recorded and used as a cash grab to keep the artist in cocaine and hookers until the next real album comes out. Not to mention that a lot of bands actually kind of suck at playing their own songs, especially some of the late greats who liked to perform while zonked out on a field hospital’s worth of pharmaceuticals, and the live album does nothing but reveal their laziness and lack of skill without the comfort of good studio production. But Joe Jackson, of course, does things his own way, and when he goes to make a live album, he’s armed with the best musicians, an invited audience and an entirely original set of songs. The production quality and sheer musical perfection of Big World belies its origin on the concert stage. It’s so the antithesis of a live record that I’m actually not sure what the point was in the first place. It just sounds perfect. I mean, check out the musicianship in that video.
“Shame on you, you’re having too much fun”
Truly, a cautionary tale. This is from Timbuk 3’s debut album, when their future was, well, you know… One wonders what fun was had that prevented them from staying more aggressively in the spotlight in the following years though. It certainly wasn’t the lack of good material. Probably something to do with not having the personalities for stardom; they even wrote a song about that, called B-Side of Life. I like to think that Timbuk 3 was always just too clever and acerbic for the mainstream. Clearly, Barbara MacDonald’s flow could’ve given Debbie Harry a run for her money, but she didn’t have the hair and legs that sell a million records.